Skip Richter, based in Houston, is a popular speaker for garden clubs, Master Gardener programs, and other gardening events across Texas. He has...Full Bio


To plant winter rye or not

Every November, usually after the first cold snap, questions about using winter rye grass start coming into my email, Facebook page and the GardenLine radio show. Longtime listeners and readers already know the answer, but we attract new followers every week with so many people moving into the region from other states. So, I think it’s worth revisiting the topic of using winter rye in our turfgrasses for what might be a normal winter in these parts.

Photo: Randy Lemmon

When it comes to planting winter rye, my answer is a big, fat NO! I think it’s a bad idea, despite some communities mandating its use. I can give qualified approval in a few special situations, but if you just want to plant winter rye because you think it’ll provide green grass through the winter, please don’t.

It may be okay to put down winter grasses for erosion control – maybe for someone with a brand-new home who, for some reason, can’t put out new sod just yet. But, if you can afford solid sod, do it, because it can be installed pretty much any time of the year around here.

A second case for using ryegrass would involve hosting an event. For example, if you're planning a wedding or reception at the house. Or maybe using the yard as a site for wedding pictures. And a third instance might be as a stop-gap fix, maybe in situations where turfgrass has thinned out because of too much shade, an insect infestation or fungal disease. Before spending a lot of money in a futile re-sodding effort, you could use winter rye as temporary groundcover.

Now, for the reasons you should NOT put winter rye on an established lawn.

First, your existing grass needs to rest during the winter. That also means you get to rest, because winter rye still needs to be watered and fertilized and mowed and edged. Plus, most importantly, winter rye will take away nutrients that are supposed to be there for your existing turf during its "winterization.” Without important nutrients, your existing lawn will struggle to bounce back in the spring. In my on-site consulting business, I’ve seen this problem ad-infinitum over the last eight months. I’m often asked, “I follow your schedule, so why did my lawn not bounce back after the February freeze lake my neighbors?” But in about 80% of the cases, the client will admit that they put out winter rye. That used up all the fall fertilizers, leaving nothing for the St. Augustine to rebound with.

Additionally, when winter rye is maintained with a typical rotary-style mower, it looks disgusting right being cut. For thin-bladed grass like Bermuda or rye to look its best, you need a reel mower - one that cuts over the top like those used on golf courses and baseball fields.

Finally, you should avoid ryegrass because of a potential improper germination rate. Winter rye lawns that aren't properly done wind up looking sort of like a balding man's comb-over. He may think it looks okay, but to others it never looks quite right.

Now if you absolutely must to do it for one of my approved reasons, let's do it right. First, get an annual rye, not a perennial rye. That way it won't keep coming back year after year. Then, get it done in the next few weeks – put down the first layer before the next serious cold snap. You can put out subsequent applications later, but at least get a gauge on your germination rate.

I despise homeowner associations and subdivisions that mandate the use of winter rye. As my predecessor Bill Zak use to say, “I’ll bet dollars to donuts…” that the yards in subdivisions requiring ryegrass end up looking like crap in February, March and April. Anyone who follows my schedule will be very pleased with bounce-back as early as February and have a robust lawn by April. Meanwhile, winter rye-encumbered lawns will be struggling until as late as June to get their existing turf popping.

Last Chance on Saturday for Signed Books in November

Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday will be your last chance in November to get personalized copies of my book New Decade Gardening. Just come see me at the Texas City Garden Club’s 49th Annual Holiday Gift Market! It opens at 9:30 a.m., but I’m on the air until 10. That’s when I’ll hustle out there, and I might even show up as early as 11:30.

The market is at the Nessler Center, 2010 5th Avenue N., with more than 40 vendors of all kinds, giving you a chance to get in some early holiday shopping. And my book will be on sale - the more copies you buy, the better the deal. Plus, for those buying multiple books, I’ve got some special freebies.

I am working on setting up a December book signing or two, but for November, this is the last one. It’s also the only convenient one for far-Southeast Side listeners.

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